Tag Archives: MustSee

They Shall Not Grow Old

[5 stars]

WWI has always felt distant to contemporary audiences. The old, jerky, mis-timed black & white footage is almost comic despite its subject. The photos are often horrific, but drained of impact for anyone who grew up with color photography and TV. Now imagine tackling the subject like a Ken Burns documentary on steroids, and with a much expanded f/x budget, and you get a sense of They Shall Not Grow Old.

Through enhancements and brilliant sound design, Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) helps you experience just a bit of the sense of the battles in the trenches. It is a very clever and disturbing trip, often hard to watch, but also fascinating. It brings to life and humanizes the meatgrinder that destroyed over a million lives and shredded a countryside. Jackson delivers a visceral vision of WWI unlike any you’ve ever seen. It is a perfect, sober recognition of its centenary.

Using the recorded interviews, photos, and archival footage, sprinkled with some very clever magic dust, we are taken full circle in the story. It begins with enlistment and carries us through the return home and the struggles, triumphs, and the odd reality of the last war that was fought with a sense of adventure…the first war that was heavily documented in media, even if that was filtered to the public. No war was the same after The Great War (and you could argue that WWII was just a continuation of the first). Technology had changed the tactics and repercussions. Medicine had more people surviving with debilitating injuries. Politics had gone global in a way never before seen. And people still had to catch up with all of those realities.

The journey is, by necessity, compact. It focuses on a single battle site as a proxy for a four+ year engagement, but it makes its point. Listening to the men who served is a revelation in perspective. Seeing the footage, even when some of the effects look a little creepy, is surprisingly impactful. You leave the viewing both aware of the horror and amazed at the resilience of the people involved. It isn’t comprehensive, but it is revealatory and presented with a true love of the people who were there, whether they survived or not.

I am not a huge fan of documentaries about war. They are rarely neutral in their conversation and presentation. And, far too often, they bend toward the jingoistic. Certainly, this movie has its attitude crafted by the editing choices. But it also manages to walk the line and retain the cultural sense of the time while providing enough of the facts to let us ponder our own conclusions. This really is a must watch 95 minutes. It will bring to life an era that has always felt distant, despite its fallout in politics, industry, immigration, and global life that has direct-line effects on our current lives.

Ida

[4 stars]

Ida navigates a crisp landscape of grays with quiet tension. In fact the black and white filmed film goes to great pains to keep it all gray except for notable spots of deep black that are intended to draw our eye. It is a beautiful and painful film that focuses on personal choice and identity, despite being surrounded with many tales of morality.

The young Ida, given life by Agata Trzebuchowska in her first role, is as near silent and immobile as one of the idols she maintains in her convent. But it is a stillness that radiates information and emotion. She is brought into the greater world by her aunt, inhabited by a near equally quiet and complex Agata Kulesza. They know nothing of one another, for reasons that become plain, but are drawn together by the bonds of family as the only remaining survivors of WWII. The women make an odd combination, talking more in their silences than they do with their words.  It is a beautiful thing to watch.

Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski has an amazing eye and sure hand. His co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience) and he kept paring down the script to its essentials in words and moments. The entire film comes in at 1:22, but it is like eating a super-rich cake. A small amount is filling and satisfying…and in no way feels like a small thing when you’re done.

Ida was massively nominated and won many awards. All deserved. Appreciate this film for the story, the characters, and the gorgeous cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal (Loving Vincent). It is very much time well spent.

Ida

BlacKkKlansman

[5 stars]

Undoubtedly, this is Spike Lee’s (Chi-Raq) best film since Do The Right Thing. Not because he is back on political ground, he never left it, but because it flows, it is human, and it is a masterful piece of storytelling that takes you from Point A to a Point B in unexpected ways. It is an hypnotic film that draws you in with its humor and, while never subtle, slowly turns the screws to leave you with that same self-reflective feeling Do The Right Thing managed way back when.

Certainly Lee’s trademark camera work and shots are present, but he holds them back for better impact than he has in the past. And his direction for the actors is subtle as he orchestrates the off-beat and nearly unbelievable tale.

In the lead, John David Washington (Ballers) floats perfectly through Stallworth’s story. Adam Driver (Logan Lucky) supports him well by his side and navigating his own complex history. As difficult as these roles were to play, Topher Grace (The Calling), Ryan Eggold (Lucky Them), Jasper Pääkkönen (Vikings), and Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya) deserve special notice. They had to navigate some very dark places with conviction and without allowing them to become caricatures; no easy task.

This film is rather female poor, which was a surprise. However, Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Ashlie Atkinson (One Dollar) each create fascinating, true-believers who are very much part of the story. As a surprise short bit, Alec Baldwin (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) sets the tone nicely if not entirely fits in the movie. There are many other performances to notice, but this would get too long to list them all. Suffice to say that it is a well heeled and directed cast.

But, unlike the also true Shock and Awe, Lee managed to find the personal stories in the tale and to talk to us openly and honestly, bringing home the point of his film. In fact, he baldly lectures and nods to our present day. Because he does, but within the strictures of the story he’s telling, it becomes wry, sarcastic humor rather than pure chest-beating exposition. I don’t know how he managed that, but it worked.

The movie has its flaws, but not many. Most of the concerns I had fled as the movie wrapped up and the reasons for many choices became clear. It is certainly an odd structure, but it is also a beautiful piece of architecture and a movie not to be missed. Make time for this film in the theater. It isn’t necessarily a big-screen flick, though Lee certainly knows how to frame things, but it does deserve your support and time. It isn’t a pleasant subject, but you get plenty of sugar with the medicine. That BlacKkKlansman is a true story only adds to the weird and scary wonderfulness of it all.

BlacKkKlansman

Three Identical Strangers

[4.5 stars]

Tim Wardle’s matryoshka-like tale of three brothers separated at birth is fascinating. Even if you remember the story from when it happened, you don’t know the whole of it. Wardle’s control, revealing it in layers, takes you down a rabbit hole; it creates an experience as close to how the brothers themselves experienced it as you could hope for. The structure is a wonderful example of form and function, and yes, showmanship.

There is much to take away from this documentary. Some of it is wonderful and some of it less so. To discuss any of it would be to diminish the experience for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say, make time for this. Support it. And keep an eye on Wardle. He may have lucked out with subject matter on this one, but he still had to have the eye to find it and the skill to present it as powerfully as he did, while still being utterly fair to the facts.

Three Identical Strangers

Sense8 (Finale)

[4.5 stars]

I originally wasn’t  going to bother writing up this late add-on to Sense8. In fact, I had avoided it fearing a huge let-down. The show was cancelled and this was a nod by Netflix to not totally tick off the fans. Who knew what it would manage to do in a single episode wrap-up?

BUT, I needn’t have worried. This was a fabulous and breathless finale that ran 2.5 hours without a moment’s hesitation or break, and ends with a complete wrap up and sense of release (literally). While I still preferred the first series’ approach to the multi-cultural and multi-language issues, this finale managed to find a balance in language and culture that the second series missed in moving to all English.

If you waited like me, I do recommend rewatching the final episode (You Want a War) in the regular series to retrench you on where things were. The finale picks up directly and carries on from there. Yes, it is a bit rushed and, yes, the final image could be debated, but overall it was an amazing effort. The result compacts a huge vision into a small space in order to explain and complete the story that was intended to stretch over seasons. Honestly, it is the best we could have hoped for given the circumstances, even as we mourn what might have been for the series had it continued.

Sense8 is one of the most audacious and amazing bits of television, let alone science fiction, to ever grace the screen. The Wachowski’s, Straczynski, and Netflix (not to mention Tykwer) all need to be thanked for their bravery and talent in creating it. Someday it will be recognized for the seminal event it is, but for now, for those of us who discovered and can enjoy it, we should celebrate it and its message of hope and love.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

[4.5 stars]

Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom)  has put together a lo-fi cure for hopelessness in these dark and desperate times. This is not a flashy film. It is full of old, grainy footage, talking heads, and simple conversations, much like Fred Roger’s shows. And yet it is profoundly powerful, like watching old, previously lost films from the attic of your childhood or of your family (or the family you wish you had).

If you grew up on Roger’s shows, it is easy to miss how subversive they were. This is especially true if you watched them from the beginning in the late 60’s. His willingness to discuss hard subjects with children, his inherent belief that children were people capable of understanding and, more importantly, were wells of potential goodness in the world was unlike anyone else in the media. Both he and his show embodied that in the tone, the pace, and the simplicity of its presentation. Reflecting on those shows, the events surrounding them, and his philosophy is to acknowledge something we’ve lost.

Not that it really matters, but given it has been 15 years since Roger’s passing, I did wonder about the impetus for this documentary. Part way through the movie, I think I got my answer when Yo-Yo Ma made an appearance; Yo-Yo Ma and Rogers were long-time friends. My guess is that Neville was inspired during the creation of The Music of Strangers to look at Rogers as a subject. The timing of the release may well be happenstance, but I expect it is, in part, in recognition of how far society in this country has drifted from Roger’s simple ministry of ideals and hopes.

Personally, I went into this film despondent over the last week in the news. Shattered, actually. Won’t You Be My Neighbor gave me back a sense of hope, but not in a blind way. Roger’s moment fighting for PBS in Congress subtly sums up so much of what has gone wrong in this country and shows that it could be something else…because it once was. It is a perfect film for a troubled time as a reminder of what we are capable of and how we should approach people and the world and, yes, even politics.

[If you want to see just how low I had gotten prior to this film, you can read When Hyberbole Meets Axis (password: politicalplace)]

Won

RBG

[4 stars]

Legal icon. Trailblazer. Intellectual champion. Übermensch. Octogenarian superstar. Notorious RBG has earned her moniker and the respect of multiple generations. Quietly and steadily, this unassuming 5′ 4″, soft-spoken woman reset the course of law in this country in support of equal rights for all. It is story that will give you hope in these divisive and regressive times…and really make you wonder how we went from people of her caliber to nominations like the decidedly unqualified and poorly spoken Gorsuch,  or 45 (not that I have an opinion there).

As a documentary, this is a fairly straight-forward recounting of Ginsburg’s life and career and the steps that have led her to be such a loud voice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Some you probably know, a lot you probably don’t. There is little subtlety to the film, but there is great respect and a surprising range of voices in her corner. The film-makers go out of their way to avoid too much controversy, which is a bit of a shame. Given that the Red Scare is the reason Ginsburg is a judge, and particularly a judge focused on civil liberties, they had an opportunity to create something a bit more pointed for the present day. As it is, there are hints and nods, but it is generally very matter-of-fact with some delightful peeks at her family life and out-of-court persona.

RBG is worth seeing just to get a sense of history and change that has occurred over the last 50 years; a lot of it very good. It is important to remember there has been movement…and just as important to remember you must always defend the gains lest people take them away. With stalwarts like RBG still on the bench, at least we have her voice when things go in the wrong direction. Sometimes that voice alone is enough to move mountains…just ask Lilly Ledbetter. And that is comforting.

RBG

The Leisure Seeker

[4.5 stars]

Forgive me, I’m going to kvell a little. It just isn’t all that often that a movie grabs me so completely. Director and co-writer Paolo Virzì (Like Crazy) delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of love and life that will suck you in and wring you dry;  a wonderful, emotional canon which I highly recommend for any movie lover or romantic. It is both obvious and subtle, tackling aspects of age and marriage in wonderfully real ways. But it is relationship that takes the fore, with the ailments that ultimately drive the story very much in the background rather than the front and center focus of other films, like Still Alice or, for that matter, Marjorie Prime or The Memory of a Killer.

Virzì gifts us with a set of performances and story that quietly grips you from the moment it begins and refuses to let you go until the last, triumphant moment. It is both a tragedy and a comedy, a love story and a tale of glory (in its way). It is inevitable and unavoidable, but the path and the revelations are constantly surprising. The resulting film and performances are already up for awards this year, but will likely be forgotten for the majors since it released so early though I hope it won’t be.

Though Helen Mirren (Winchester) dominates the screen throughout, it is Donald Sutherland’s (The Calling) quiet performance and moments of shift that make this a devastating and emotional film. In a wonderful bit of direction, Janel Moloney (American Crime), as their daughter, delivers a performance that mirrors Sutherland’s in many ways.

I will admit, it isn’t quite a perfect movie, though it is close. It chooses to nail itself down in time to the summer of 2016 irrevocably for reasons I never quite puzzled out. And Christian McKay’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) turn as Mirren and Sutherland’s son is just slightly off, never quite fitting into the movie as a whole. Neither choice ruins the movie, but it knocks it down just a notch in my rating and recommendation.

But this is a must-see film for film lovers and anyone with either elderly family members or those in or above middle-age. It is a reminder of why we struggle and why we love. It is, above all, an homage to marriage and relationships, with all their warts and shine. You will laugh a lot, cry a lot, and ultimately smile as you leave the theater.

The Leisure Seeker

Love, Simon

[4.5 stars]

Simon delivers in the most wonderful ways and still finds a core truth to make it work. In fact, my theater broke into applause more than once during the movie (once at the penultimate moment we’d been waiting for and once at the end credits). In the last 20 years I can only think of a few films that got genuine, spontaneous applause in a general viewing, so that’s saying something.

Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) does a great job embodying Becky Albertalli’s title character from her book. He gives us a Simon that is easy to like and understand, not to mention who you want to slap silly for his missteps (and then forgive him all the same). There is no nod or wink, he simply is a teenager dealing with life.

Robinson is helped along with a collection of other young actors, all dealing with life in their own ways. Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Brigsby Bear) complete the core group of friends. Logan Miller (Before I Fall), Keiynan Lonsdale (Legends of Tomorrow), Miles Heizer (13 Reasons Why), and Clark Moore are all nice additions around the rest of the tale.

Jennifer Garner (Men, Women, Children) and Josh Duhamel (Unsolved: Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.), as Simon’s parents strike just the right tone for this somewhat idealized, gee-I-wish-this-had-been-my-home feel. I dare you to make it through their critical scenes without shedding tears. Even Tony Hale’s (American Ultra) over-the-top Vice Principal manages to strike a tone that works for the story.

Speaking of tone, director Greg Berlanti did a brilliant job with that throughout, no doubt helped by his extensive background as a producer and writer. He took what writing team Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (This is Us, About a Boy) delivered and made it sing. Their script manages to tease out the humor and the emotions without wallowing. As a first feature film script, they also proved they can leap media. And, as a team, Love, Simon brings us the first major, main-stream release of a gay rom-com to screen. That it is aimed at teens should be no surprise since that generation is significantly less judgmental than most of their parents. The irony is that on a personal level, the struggle is still the same in any generation; coming into your own is never easy.

Which means there is both a specific truth and a general truth to this story, which is what makes it so wonderfully universal. The specific truth, the stress of coming out as a teenager, is the written core of this relatively faithful adaptation. But different is different in High School, regardless of what that difference is. And, of course, we all feel “different.” That is the general truth.

Go see this movie. Admit going in that when you see a film like this, you are accepting a contract to be manipulated. You do so not only willingly, but with the desire for the release. But it is wonderful and uplifting and, no matter how manipulated or idealized, it feels true or like you want it to be true. It is well acted and well delivered and will leave you holding someone close to you and grateful for having them in your life.

Love, Simon